Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden received an impressive seven Tony Award nominations when it debuted on Broadway in 1991 and it is easy to understand why this show is still a favorite of so many theatergoers. The score is fantastic, from the darkest ballads to its most joyful tunes. A musical so densely packed with original, memorable and moving songs is a rare treat. The book brings out all the best elements of the much beloved novel by Francis Hodgson Burnett.
The cast is as good as the material they have to work with in the Arden Theatre Company's production. Jeffrey Coon gives an emotionally charged performance as uncle Archibald Craven. It is hard to see a production of The Secret Garden without recalling Mandy Patinkin's Broadway original, but I am pleased to say that I found Coon's rich and nuanced performance every bit as good as Mr. Patinkin's. Bailey Ron is great as young Mary Lennox. The role of Martha is played with a sense of warmth and strength by Alex Keiper. Jim Hogan and James Stabp both give memorable performances as Dr. Neville Craven and Albert Lennox respectively. Steve Pacek does an outstanding job as nature-loving Dickon despite a costume that seems designed to thwart his performance at every turn.
Dickon has an uncannily close relationship to the wilderness; he senses the seasonal rhythm of the moors and speaks directly to at least one bird. But poor Mr. Pacek must perform in a clean white button-down shirt that has clearly never touched a snagging nettle or scampering claw. His vest seems to have been part of a three-piece suit in its previous life. Pacek's costumey hat is distracting and his heeled boots are maddeningly at odds with Dickon's earthy character. Still none of these costume problems hampers Pacek's performance as much as the projection screen that sits center stage throughout. In a particularly tough moment Pacek must sing "Winter's on the Wing"a rustic and spiritual ode to the changes in the land that signal a coming springon a sparse white stage dwarfed by a two-story metal staircase and the 8'x12' screen. The static image blown up on the screen through the entire song is a poorly constructed model of one tree on a hill. There can be no doubt that Pacek's powerful performance would be more effective if he wore a t-shirt and stood on a black-box stage.
Through the entire performance that screen functions as a closed circuit television, displaying the images captured by a camera operator working in front of the house. That operator sits in front of a rotating carousel filled with tiny model sets, which is built into the lip of the stage. The audience can see the camera operator filming each model and projecting it onto the screen like a backdrop. It is a neat idea and one can understand how such a system seemed promising. Practically speaking, a model set is cheaper and easier to build than full-size pieces, so the images projected onto the screen could be more elaborate and complex than a regular set. Thematically speaking, using a screen to display the interior sets invokes the ubiquitous presence of screens in our livesscreens that isolate us even in a crowd and hamper our ability to appreciate the natural beauty of the world all around us. The importance of experiencing the natural world, of getting our hands dirty in the soil and opening ourselves to meaningful human interaction, is an important theme within The Secret Garden.
Unfortunately, the system of models and cameras and screens fails in the execution. Most of the models are not adequately detailed and when blown up onto the projection screen they look overly simplistic and unrefined. Not one of the model backdrops are more detailed or interesting than what you would expect to see in a standard production. The closed circuit television also fails to convey any message about the isolating effect of modern technology, because the projected interior sets are never contrasted against a more natural-looking outdoor or garden themed exterior location. Both the dreary inside of the house and the sun drenched spring gardens are depicted by the same crudely constructed models being projected onto the ever present screen.
The screen is like an albatross around the neck of director Terrence J. Nolen's production. Over-reliance on the projected images has led to the creation of a garden set that does not include a single green leaf or one richly brown pile of dirt. The lack of color in the set and in the costumes makes this a depressingly monochromatic production. Niki Cousineau's choreography seems designed to keep the focus on the screen and away from the actors. During the rousing ensemble number "Storm I," which describes the staff's mad scramble to prepare the manor before the coming storm, the cast simply stands motionless on the staircases that surround the looming screen, staring at its static image. And of course there are Mr. Pacek's energetic odes to his love of nature, bizarrely out of place when performed in front of the large screen, metal stairs, and white stage.
The cast is so great and the score is so moving that there are many times when the screen-centered minimalistic set does nothing to diminish the quality of the experience. When Ryon and Pacek sing "Wick" the energy is so spell binding the pair seem to create a luscious garden by force of will alone. "Quartet" performed by Coon, Hogan, Sarah Gliko (Rose), and Elisa Matthews (Lily Craven) offers another transcendent moment. The vocal and emotional quality of these performers is undeniable.
The Secret Garden is a great musical and the stellar company make this a production worth seeing. Just know that you will need to bring a lot in the way of imagination to make up for the sets and the staging. And maybe bring in a few green leaves too. It couldn't hurt to have something wick in there.
The Secret Garden runs through June 19, 2016, on the Arden Theatre Company's F. Otto Haas Stage at 40 N. 2nd Street in Philadelphia.For tickets, call the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, visit www.ardentheatre.org or walk-up at the box office.